The Minnesota Vikings step into a big late-season matchup on Sunday afternoon as they travel to Tampa Bay to face off with the Buccaneers.
With a roster that has the look of a Madden NFL 21 fantasy draft, the Vikings will have a tough task in defeating the Buccaneers. However, a win can help solidify their spot in the NFC playoff race and give them a chance to become a dangerous team down the stretch.
Can the Vikings run on the Bucs defense?
The Vikings' revival since the bye week has been keyed in large part due to a commitment in the running game. With Dalvin Cook leading the league in rushing yards since Week 7, it's clear Minnesota is going to try to run the ball on Sunday.
The question is whether the Vikings can do that against the league's No. 1 run defense. The Buccaneers have a strong front seven that includes Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Shaquil Barrett and have allowed a league-low 3.3 yards per carry this season.
Cook has been the catalyst for the Vikings' offense all season long, so the Vikings will need to find a way to crack this unit if they want a chance of moving the ball.
Will the Vikings survive the loss of Eric Kendricks?
The Vikings defense took a major blow last Sunday when Kendricks aggravated a calf injury during pre-game warmups against the Jacksonville Jaguars. After being ruled out, the Jaguars went to work in the middle of the field, giving Tyler Eifert a season-high six catches for 45 yards.
Eifert's stat line was modest, but it represented a major hole in the Vikings' defense. This week, the Vikings may not be as lucky as they'll go up against a future Hall of Famer in Rob Gronkowski.
Gronkowski is fourth in the NFL in receiving yards among tight ends since O.J. Howard suffered a torn Achilles in Week 4, but could be a key part of the Bucs offense without Kendricks in the lineup. If the Vikings can't keep tabs on Gronk, it could be a long afternoon.
Can the Vikings handle the Bucs' pressure?
We already mentioned that the Buccaneers are great against the run, but they also have a knack for sending extra attackers on the blitz.
Coming into Sunday's game, Tampa Bay is sixth in the NFL blitzing 39.3 percent of the time. In addition, teams have turned up their blitzes against the Vikings in recent weeks with the Jaguars and Carolina Panthers blitzing Minnesota 43 times over the past two games.
By comparison, Minnesota had never seen more than 11 blitzes in a game prior to those contests.
Blitzing will give the Vikings an extra challenge upfront, but could also open the door for big plays downfield. With top cornerback Jamel Dean doubtful with a groin injury, there should be opportunities for Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson if Kirk Cousins can handle the pressure.
Who will win in the red zone?
The Vikings and Buccaneers feature two of the top red zone targets in the NFL. With 12 receiving touchdowns Adam Thielen leads the Vikings in that category while Mike Evans has visited the end zone 11 times for Tampa Bay this season.
For the Vikings, the presence of Evans along with Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown brings plenty of challenges. Cameron Dantzler has been one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL since returning from a concussion in Week 11 but the Vikings may also be without Jeff Gladney, who is nursing a calf injury.
If the Vikings can shut down the Bucs, they'll have to hope that Thielen and Jefferson can find a way to take advantage of a secondary that allowed 269 yards and three touchdowns to Tyreek Hill two weeks ago.
Can the Vikings solidify their spot in the NFC?
Yes, the Vikings are currently a playoff team. After wins against Jacksonville and Carolina, they've managed to squeak their way into the newly-created seventh seed in the NFC. But the Vikings just don't feel like a playoff team.
Sunday's game against the Bucs has a chance to change that. A lot of what Tampa Bay does are things that have a good chance to exploit the Vikings and if they play like they did against their last two opponents (with missed kicks, fumbles and other mistakes), this could get ugly early.
But the Vikings have also played to their competition this season and almost have wins against Tennessee and Seattle. If the Vikings can overcome their flaws, this could be "a big boy win" that makes the Vikings a dangerous team moving forward.